Sue and Arabella, in Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, are like a Pre-Raphaelite painting of Sacred and Profane Love. There they stand—assuming the absent man, the abashed, overwhelmed Jude. Sue is thin, pretty, with a light, abstracted, questioning gaze; Arabella is round, sly-eyed, sleepy, with the dreaming torpor of a destitute girl pondering an exchange of sexual coin. It is scarcely worth noting that they are different, almost opposites. The sources of feeling could not be more reflective than they are in Sue, or more immediate and formless than they are in Arabella. Experience, with them, is not merely the sum of events gone through; it is the response of their differing consciousness to love, want, greed, or renunciation.
In the novel, Sue and Arabella are connected as women with Jude Frawley. But he does not initiate or control. Instead, he is identified by them and his situation is dominated by what they offer or withhold. In youth he comes under the sexual domination of Arabella, a surrender rather flimsy that immediately becomes a trap very steely. With Sue, a miserable life is redeemed by the joys of enlightenment and by the special importance that is given to a love or an attachment by one who cares to think about it in a deep way.
There is every kind of suffering and failure in Jude the Obscure. This is its great glory as a novel—the passion, the complexity, the completeness, if you will, of petty, mean, bitter failure. Waste, oppression, injustice, indifference have soaked into the very soil of life, washing away all of the yearnings and rights of those with unlucky natures or unfortunate birth. Social and spiritual deprivation bears down on these modest persons who have asked only the lightest measure of possibility. Every single character fails—falls, in great pain, each one. The children, the lovers, the married, the ignorant, the intellectual. The only moments of happiness are the innocence of early hope and perhaps those instances of love and respect Sue Bridehead, a singular, deep creation, brings to the lives about her. Love and respect—or is it, instead, affection and sympathy, emotions a little more distant.
Sue is an original, mingled being. The outlines of her nature waver and flow. She is as we find it often in our lives: one of those striking, haunting persons who endlessly talk, act, and analyze and yet never quite form a whole as a simpler and more rigid character would. Too many parts and each with its quality and interest; the design is there but it fades suddenly. This sort of person, like Sue, thinks and that is her mystery. It is not at all the usual mystery. The most fascinating and startling complications of her character have to do with sex and with the power of abstract ideas upon a truly superior female mind.
Sue Bridehead is frail, delicately balanced. She is a radical skeptic and it is her custom to ponder and question the arrangements and tyrannies of society. She is intense, “all nervous motion,” and yet “artless” and “natural.” Sue is more or less self-educated and has encountered avant-garde ideas about religion, art, and Biblical interpretation. When we first see her she is reading the chapter in Gibbon on Julian the Apostate. Somehow her involvement with critical, radical thought, the cluster of aesthetic and social attitudes, form a frame for her disappointments and for the rebukes of society. It is the common thing of an intellectual alienation that gives an assurance to one’s character and even a measure of tranquillity and resignation to balance the shatterings and shakings of psychological intensity.
In quite a different way, the pained, stumbling efforts of Jude to gain knowledge have about them a despondent, almost imprisoning aspect. His books, his noble, baffled yearnings create in us a great pity for him, but it is as if a necessary sense had been denied him along with the cruel denials of society. Jude’s hopes for education are linked with the natural hopes for a profession, whereas with Sue ideas and learning have a gratuitous, spontaneous, somewhat unprofessional character, that of the deepest inclination. When Jude is brutally turned down in his dream to enter Christminster (Oxford):
“…and, judging from your description of yourself as a working man, I venture to think that you will have a much better chance of success in life by remaining in your own sphere and sticking to your trade than by adopting any other course…”
he adjusts his hopes and plans to study theology, with the idea of making his life in the Church. He is astonished by Sue’s lighthearted dismissal of much of religion and by, for instance, her contempt for the Church’s efforts to deny the erotic meanings of the Song of Solomon. He cries out several times that she is a “perfect Voltairian.”
In the end what is so poignant is that Sue’s brightness and will to freedom cannot save her. She goes down into despair with Jude and, finally, under the strain of life, sinks into a punishing denial of her own principles about marriage and religion. She has not, through ideas and strong personal leanings, been able to break out of poverty and defeat and the undermining force of an accumulation of disasters. Life simply will not open itself to her frail, unsupported brightness. In despair she tries to name the mystery of implacable barriers. “There is something exterior to us which says, ‘You shan’t!’ First it said, ‘You shan’t learn!’ Then it said, ‘You shan’t labour!’ Now it says, ‘You shan’t love!’ “
Jude the Obscure is about poverty and the crushing of the spirit that goes along with it like a multiplying tumor. It is also about sex and marriage. Marriage is, as the plot develops, an experience violated by need, by the drastic workings of chance, and by the peculiar limitations of choice. It is also seen as an idea, an institution, open to the “higher criticism” in the same manner as religion and scriptural problems. At best it is a thunderclap, the sky lights up, and then a storm of entrapment, manipulation, and bad feeling rains down. Wholeness and freedom are violated and, for Sue at least, these qualities are of the first value. In putting this value upon them she creates a violent uneasiness in what would otherwise have been a more usual plotting of forces and resolutions.
The price of sex is a destruction for every fulfillment, and often a destruction without fulfillment. Love exhausts itself as a spur to action in any case and its claim upon the soul is not greater than the claim of pity—even less at times. Part of the peculiar quality of this suffering, tragic novel is that the relationships, worn down as they are by life, have, nevertheless, a kind of loveliness. Perhaps it is the glow spread by Sue’s complicated candor and by her patient, analytical effort to understand her feelings and convictions. Only Arabella, limited, greedy, “normal” at least in her lack of the fastidious scrupulosities of Sue—only she is outside a certain grace and sweetness.
Arabella is as much a convention in the history of the novel as Sue is an original. It is the rule of conventions to ask us to accept as given a certain gathering of traits and motives. Arabella represents the classical entrapment by sex: the entrapment of an “innocent” sensual man by a hard, needy, shackling woman. Arabella’s coarseness is a mirror of Jude’s weakness. Her qualities are a force of a negative kind; their bad effects upon others are far more devastating than any advantages she may reap for herself. Advantage is forever in her mind and in many ways the failure of dishonest sex to bring about anything prosperous is always interesting. The person exploited by dishonest sex is weakened, distracted, and a falling off of personal and worldly fortune is likely to be observed. This is true for both the men and the women and especially striking if both are poor since, in that case, the entrapment has not found its proper object. In Arabella, sexual exploitation is combined with other deceits. Indeed the deceits are inevitable since she has no plan, conviction, or order that could give her relations with men a genuineness. What is absent in Arabella is love. Her compulsions arise from the survival struggle and not from obsessional passion. All of these exigencies are meant to signal that she is “bad” in some intrinsic way.
Arabella begins with the physical charms of youth, a bosomy air of possibility. But this is presented as a fraud. Her tendency is to face life as a desperate improvisation and she will naturally lack the discipline that might protect her small, early capital of beauty. Arabella’s driven poverty, the crude urgings of an unenlightened family, the scheming habit of the other poor girls in the village have severely limited her vision. Hardy’s presentation of her ignoble struggle scarcely hints at the numbness inside.
And her sullenness: only this has the shape of a deeply personal and meaningful condition of Arabella’s feeling. It is a sullenness shrouded in peasant melancholy. The sullenness is her own comment on her deceitfulness and is some always dawning awareness of its futility. Even deceit needs a more nourishing soil than society has allowed Arabella. Her efforts are the traditional ones the novelist will give her: she works as a barmaid and early unsettles Jude with her knowledge of malts and hops. In the course of the novel she will move on to Australia; she will marry for the second time without unmarrying the first. She always ends up without money or help. She has a pitiful child whom she looks upon as one would look upon a mongrel loosely and accidentally attached to one’s life.
For a poor and lonely young man like Jude, pleasure is not to be taken without cost. He is not hard enough for his encounter with Arabella—that is the way it has been designed. In the same way he is not gifted enough for the life of scholarship and learning his heart is set upon. Jude’s longings have falsely come to rest in his dream of Christminster. He is a man who would sacrifice everything for the journey and yet takes the wrong road. Arabella’s offering of sex is seen as a menace to learning and ambition and that does not prove to be wrong. There is a heavy consequence, a large bill to be paid for the most perfunctory surrender. Latin and Greek are not accommodating. After he has been with Arabella he comes home to the reproachful books.
There lay his book open, just as he had left it, and the capital letters on the title-page regarded him with fixed reproach in the grey starlight, like the unclosed eyes of a dead man.
We are given Jude’s collision with Arabella as a weakness, but one of those weaknesses most critics believe make men human, real. Arabella is deeply in tune with the consequential. By asserting cause and effect the weak avenge themselves and, of course, not always upon the strong. They avenge themselves as they must and can. They demand, they imprison. When Jude thinks of ending his affair with Arabella, she deceives him about pregnancy and they marry, in hopelessness, without any joy or understanding of each other. Jude must sell his books “to buy saucepans.”
The misery of this marriage is so great that Hardy has dipped the courtship and early days in the slow, filthy waters of the pig sty. Arabella and Jude undertake to kill a pig they have raised. Jude hears the animal scream and wishes to get it over quickly; but Arabella has a country knowledge of pigs and their killing. She cries out in anger against the idea of a quick passage to death. “You must not! The meat must be well bled and to do that he must die slow…. I was brought up to it and I know. Every good butcher keeps un bleeding long. He ought to be up to eight or ten minutes dying, at least.” The connection with Jude hastily comes to mind. His life is to be a long-drawn-out suffering and pain. The gentler tones of nature surround the brute factuality of a hard existence only as an accompaniment, an aside. “A robin peered down at the preparations from the nearest tree, and not liking the sinister look of the scene, flew away, though hungry.”
“Married is married,” Arabella says when the child does not appear in due time. She grows tired of Jude and mercifully moves on, to Australia. It cannot be the end, for there is no end to consequence, connection. “But she’s sure to come back—they always do,” Jude says. It is hard to tell what has real power over Arabella except the depressed, sullen downhill slide based on flirtations, marriages, alliances made and dropped, hopes grabbed and abandoned, listless enterprises, absence of plans. These liabilities and follies are not in the real sense her own. They are part of the given and of the absences. She is destitute, anxious, brutalized by the absences in the tradition, the only one she knows, a tradition she has to live out in the lowest, rural, most diminished terms. It is in no way softened as it is in more fortunate women, such as Eustacia Vye, who live also by manipulation and deceit.
Arabella is harshly treated by Hardy because she is so great a part of Jude’s paralysis and despondency. In his other novels there is usually a great insistence upon the virtues of the poor folk who are hemmed in by nature and custom. The furze-cutters, the reddlemen, the country mothers are heroic in their simplicity, authenticity, and constancy of feeling. Restlessness—Eustacia Vye, Lucetta, Mrs. Charmond—is inclination to spoil, to appropriate, to introduce a worldliness and standard that corrupt. The waste of talents is condemned by Hardy with a strong class feeling in a doctor like Fitzpeirs in The Woodlanders, who neglects his work, in an engineer, such as Wildeve in The Return of the Native, who out of sloth and distraction ends up running a tavern. There is a repetitiveness in this rural life that Eustacia Vye is overwhelmed by. It is the same repetitiveness Arabella is doomed to, although, in her, it is stripped of its romantic, dark, and arresting aspects.
Arabella is the bad side of the ignorance and pain of the country, just as Tess is the good part of rural courage and beauty and naturalness. The thing that finally seeps through the story is that a “sensual” risk like Arabella is really as abstract about life as Sue, as much a creature of skeptical reaction if not of thought. In her relentless trudging after the relief of love affairs, Arabella looks for the hopeless ideal. The numbing disappointments, the raging need for the means of survival, make the ignorant Arabella finally show the same lack of reverence for conformity, for the legalities of things, the same vaulting of the stony fences of convention that are found in Sue’s fascination with ideas. Of course there is nothing critical or reforming in Arabella’s delinquencies. She is blackness in action, and yet she is as miserable with Jude as he with her. Her tricking him into marriage, her lies, her abandonment of him on his deathbed are the deepest betrayals that follow on the first betrayal, their lack of real meaning for each other.
Arabella finds Jude’s goodness and yearnings boring; it is her habit to consider them as a rebuke to herself. Jude’s exacerbated sensitivity, his bouts of drunken frustration, his passion for the refined and the gentle in life—these can scarcely be offered for Arabella’s realistic approval. Her sense of things is different. Pigs have to be killed and the robin’s dismay is not to the point. Arabella’s flaws are traditional; she is harsh, but comprehensible. A contrast indeed to Sue Bridehead.
Bridehead: it is curious that Hardy should have chosen this name for Sue. It is a curiosity and something of an embarrassment because the plot of Sue’s life circles around two great reservations—refusal of sex and grave misgivings about marriage. Is “maidenhead” to be thought of? Is the idea of attaching “bride” to the name of a young woman genuinely questioning about marriage meant as a telling incongruity? Yet there is a sound to the name that does not impugn the high tone of Sue’s discourse or her ambivalences that are like a deep tattoo on the skin of her being.
Sex and marriage—of the two, marriage is the easiest surrender and Sue rather thoughtlessly submits to it with the unsuitable Mr. Phillotson, the schoolmaster. He is confused to learn that the other submission is not forthcoming. Sue asserts her right to chastity as one would, without shame, assert any other inclination. Chastity—how embarrassing it is in a love story. And how odd that it is faced so candidly and childishly rather than as a distortion and disguise, a great, devouring secret, veiled in subterfuge and duplicity. Sue is very unsettling in the prodigal openness with which she greets these dark holes of withdrawal. She tells Jude of the most important experience of her youth, her meeting with a young undergraduate at Christminster.
“He asked me to live with him, and I agreed to by letter. But when I joined him in London I found he meant a different thing from what I meant. He wanted to be my lover, in fact, but I wasn’t in love with him; and on my saying I should go away if he didn’t agree to my plan, he did so. We shared a sitting-room for fifteen months; and he became a leader-writer for one of the great London dailies; till he was taken ill, and had to go abroad. He said I was breaking his heart by holding out against him so long at such close quarters…. I might play that game once too often he said…. I hope he died of consumption, and not of me entirely. I went down to Sandbourne to his funeral, and was his only mourner. He left me a little money—because I broke his heart, I suppose. That’s how men are—so much better than women!”
Jude is distressed and cannot understand her “curious unconsciousness of gender.” And yet Sue is all charm and sympathy. Jude and Mr. Phillotson are in no way graceful or inspired enough to be her companions but it would never occur to us that some “better” man would alter the curious course of Sue’s character. We might say that the brute reduction of her prospects, the bleaching rural impoverishment, the rootless, unprotected strangeness of her life with Jude are a terrible burden upon her great intelligence and upon her wandering, artless courage. Those calamities do indeed push her to the edge, but there is the essential Sue, mixed and misty as it is, that is not in any way circumstantial.
Sue’s marriage to Mr. Phillotson is the baldest inconsistency. She has a sort of unworldliness and caprice that allows her to undertake this union. The schoolmaster has none of the stirring pathos of Jude. He has early been overwhelmed by the hypocrisy and deadness of the small educational institutions of his time. He sees the lightness of Sue, her indifference to advantage, and he believes that he might appropriate some of her wayward magic to relieve his own heavy spirits. Sue, as it turns out, feels a profound aversion to Mr. Phillotson. She is aware of it—awareness of feeling is, as Irving Howe says in his brilliant portrait of Sue, part of her modernity, her fascination—aware not as an idea, but as an emotion completely personal and pressing. She hides in a dismal closet rather than enter the bedroom. Once, dreaming that he was approaching her, she jumped out of the window.
Is this neurasthenia and hysteria? To look at it in that way is to impose a late abstraction of definition upon a soul, one might almost say a new kind of human being, struggling to take form in history. The personal, the analytical, the passion for self-knowledge that raise authenticity above everything, and certainly above duty and submission, come so naturally to Sue that she is almost childlike. Hypocrisy, especially in matters of feeling, is to her a sacrilege. At one point, Jude asks her if she would like to join him in evening prayers and she says, “Oh, no, no!… I should feel such a hypocrite.”
After she has been married to Phillotson for eight weeks, Sue tries to voice her feelings. “Perhaps you have seen what it is I want to say—that though I like Mr. Phillotson as a friend, I don’t like him—it is a torture to me to—live with him as a husband!” She goes on to say in despair that she has been told women can “shake down to it,” and yet “that is much like saying that the amputation of a limb is no affliction, since a person gets comfortably accustomed to the use of a wooden leg or arm in the course of time.” In addition to aversion, she laments “the sordid contract of marriage…the dreadful contract to feel in a particular way, in a matter whose essence is its voluntariness.”
Authenticity, chastity, renunciation. Of course, Sue is not able to live out completely the deep stirrings of her nature. She feels a sympathy for Jude that is a transcendent friendship as profound and rare as love. It is sanctified by their sufferings and by the ever-spreading insecurity of their existence, by the unreality of themselves as a plan of life. In the absence of surroundings—they are like itinerants with no articles to offer as they wander in a circle from town to town—in the way their need has no more claim upon society than the perching of birds in the evening, they come to fall more and more under the domination of the mere attempt to describe themselves. They live under the protection of conversation, as many love affairs without a fixed meaning, without emotional space to occupy, come to rest in words. Their drama is one of trembling inner feeling and of the work to name the feeling.
Sue does have children—an inauthenticity for her. The children come under the doom of thought, of analysis. They die in the nihilistic suicide decision of Little Father Time, the watchful, brooding son of Arabella and Jude. Nothing seems more sadly consequent than that the tragedy should finally come to Sue, after the pain of it, as a challenge to principle, a blinding new condition in her struggle to give shape to her sense of things and of herself. She begins to go to church and gradually moves away from her old self to the decision that her original marriage to Phillotson has a remaining churchly validity and therefore the highest claim on her. She returns to him and also at last submits in every sense. An immolation. In this ending Sue is faithful to her passion for an examined life; for indeed religion is at least an idea for her, not a mere drifting. The necessity for this is pitiful and even if it seems to have a psychological truthfulness as the end of the road for one who has been utterly rejected by destiny, religion and the bed of Phillotson are like those cerebral strokes that destroy the life of a living mind. The defeat of Sue is total.